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Over The Anvil

By Mary Smythe, author of Prevailed Upon to Marry

In Jane Austen’s time, English marriage laws were extremely particular thanks to the Marriage Act of 1753, which I discussed at length in a previous blog post. Due to this law—colloquially known as Lord Hardwicke’s law—there were strict rules set not only regarding whom one was allowed to marry, but also the days of the week and specific times a wedding could take place. The law introduced a reading of the banns, which were announced by a clergyman before the local parish for three Sundays in case anyone had an objection to the union, so there was a minimum wait time between proposal and meeting at the altar. Most importantly, the Marriage Act prevented underaged brides and bridegrooms from marrying without consent from their parents. You could get around some of these rules with a license, but that was a whole different ball of wax—and often expensive.

So, in lieu of parental consent and in the face of a strict set of church guidelines, what was a desperate couple to do?

Elope to Scotland, of course.

Although eloping to Scotland wasn’t a solution for everyone—it was a long, expensive journey that most couples couldn’t afford—it was a potential salvation for passionate pairs who, for whatever reason, weren’t able to marry in the legal or traditional manner. Such is the case in my latest novel, Prevailed Upon to Marry, when Mr Darcy and Elizabeth face off against the jilted Mr Collins and are forced to make a choice: Stay and risk being torn asunder, or flee for the border?

I think we all know where this is going.

But what made Scotland such a prime destination for elopements? And what’s with that anvil thing? Well, in short, Scottish marriage laws were quite the opposite of their counterparts in England—so lax as to be almost negligible. In the wilds of Scotland, all that was required was for a couple to announce their intention to wed before witnesses and the deed was done. No, really, that was all it took. So long as the bridegroom was at least fourteen, and his bride at least twelve, they could marry as long as someone was there to attest to it. This led to a bit of a cottage industry in border towns—Gretna Green, especially, which was the first township upon crossing into Scotland on the road from London—that catered to wayward couples. It was so easily done, and brought so much money to the locals, that it was said a pair could be married within five minutes of setting foot outside their carriage—within one minute if they sent a postillion ahead to announce their impending arrival. Simply pay somewhere between five and twenty pounds—apparently, nobility was sometimes charged as much as a hundred guineas—and voila. Truly, Las Vegas has nothing on Gretna Green when it comes to cheap drive-thru nuptials.

The actual style of the wedding which took place was largely up to the ‘parson’ who conducted it, but generally speaking, the unsanctioned officiant would ask the couple to confirm they were both free to marry and at the altar willingly, the bride would be presented a ring, and then the 'parson' would write out a certificate declaring them married. Compared to the hoops one was required to jump through in England, a Scottish ceremony was exceedingly simple.

Aside from the convenience, the customer service was also excellent. Should your meddling relatives arrive between the one and five minutes required to conduct the ceremony and attempt to interrupt, the proprietor of your chosen venue would assist you and your soon-to-be-spouse in finding a room at the inn next door. There, you could then be fortuitously discovered in bed together and ruin all hope of ‘rescue’ by pursuers. After that, chances were you and your betrothed would be left to ‘get on with it’.

The most popular wedding venue in Gretna Green was undoubtedly the blacksmith’s forge. It was conveniently located at the junction of five old coaching roads and had a romantic metaphorical sentiment attached to it, that of the blacksmith forging a union between two people just as he would bind two metals together. Naturally, this idea of a permanent melding of two people was an appealing concept to anyone willing to go to such lengths to get married.

Ironically enough, the so-called ‘parson’ who popularized anvil weddings was not actually a blacksmith, nor was he a clergyman of any sort. Instead, Joseph Paisley was a smuggler, a fisherman, and a tobacconist. He fell into the marriage game almost accidentally when, at the shore one day, another smuggler who regularly conducted weddings was a no-show. Paisley took over his compatriot’s duties and, upon realizing that it was a quick way to make a buck, decided to keep doing it. He married scores and scores of desperate couples, though he did occasionally make a blunder. He was a hard-drinking man and once, reportedly, married the wrong pairs in a double ceremony. Afterwards, he was said to have remarked, “Juist sort yersel’s oot.” I’m sure that was of great comfort to the reversed couples.

Paisley plied his new trade from 1754 to 1810 before signing over his business to his granddaughter’s husband (they married in a church, to compound the irony here), Robert Elliot. By 1839, Elliot claimed to have married more than seven thousand couples in his twenty-eight years as the blacksmith parson. As the records of these marriages went up in flame at some point, that figure can’t be substantiated, but given that Elliot wasn’t the only game in town it’s entirely possible that he lowballed that figure. Truly, Gretna Green cornered the market on marrying in haste.

Okay, so a couple has married over the anvil and they’re ready to go home and face the music from their loved ones. What happens then? Can their union stand up to legal scrutiny in England? This point was hotly contested by the authorities in the Church of England and the secular courts. Lord Mansfield declared them void because they were performed with the intention of undermining the Marriage Act of 1753, but this was challenged during Jane Austen’s time. Frankly, to declare all Scottish elopements by English citizens invalid opened up a societal can of worms; after all, it wasn’t as if families could just pretend that a couple hadn’t been thoroughly compromised on that long road to Scotland. By that point, it was best to steer into the skid and just be glad that the couple were actually married by any means at all. To officially nullify the marriage only opened everyone up to further scandal and ruin. Just in case, many pairs were subsequently remarried in the church to validate their unions. In 1856, decades after my Darcy and Elizabeth would have been hitched, a new act of parliament declared that Scottish weddings of English couples were valid if they had been preceded by a three-week stay in Scotland first.

No one ever said that the path to true love was smooth, but at least Gretna Green made the wedding easy once you got there. In Prevailed Upon to Marry, the actual wedding is the least of our dear couple’s worries, but the good people of Scotland definitely come through in the end. (Uh…spoiler alert?)


Roy and Leslie Adkins, Eavesdropping on Jane Austen’s England

Susannah Fullerton, Jane Austen & Crime

Image Sources:

An 1844 depiction of a wedding at Gretna Green in Scotland, with a blacksmith’s anvil and horseshoes on the wall. (Photo: British Library/Public Domain)

An 18th century illustration of Gretna Green. (Photo: National Library of Scotland/CC BY 4.0)

Inside the Gretna Green blacksmith cottage. (Photo: Nigel Swales/CC BY-SA 2.0)

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15 Ιουν 2023

You answered a question I’ve had often (but usually when I couldn’t stop to try to find the answer): did couples married over the anvil seek a ‘proper’ English wedding? Thanks for that, and the entertaining blog. Congrats on your new book, Mary!

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